Sen. David Perdue’s Big Idea: Give unused work visas to foreign doctors, nurses to combat shortage

The Big Idea is a series that asks top lawmakers and officials to discuss their moonshot — what’s the one proposal, if politics and polls and even price tag were not an issue, they’d implement to change the country for the better?  

Bipartisanship is a rarity in Washington these days. But Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga., believes he has found a way for Republicans and Democrats to work together amid the coronavirus crisis — and to combat a shortage of doctors and nurses.

The Healthcare Workforce Resilience Act is a proposal gathering support from both sides of the aisle that would “recapture” unused visas from previous fiscal years for doctors, nurses and their family members.

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Those visas would be exempted from country caps, and employers would be required to show that immigrants who get the visas would not displace Americans. While Perdue says that Georgia and other states have been suffering from a shortage for years, the bill is specifically targeted to deal with the coronavirus crisis only -- and limits the filing period for recaptured visas to 90 days following the termination of President Trump’s emergency declaration.

It’s a bill that has the backing of groups like the American Medical Association and the Chamber of Commerce, and strong bipartisan support -- Perdue is introducing it alongside Sens. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., Todd Young, R-Ind., Chris Coons, D-Del., John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. As of Friday, the bill has 21 senators sponsoring or cosponsoring the bill.

Perdue described the bill in a Q&A with Fox News:

What was the reason for the bill, and how did you come up with the idea? 

For the last decade, our country has faced a significant shortage of doctors and nurses. The COVID-19 crisis has put our existing health care workforce under tremendous strain. Nurses and doctors are working longer hours. Retirees are being asked to come back to work. Some health care workers themselves have contracted the coronavirus.

Our bipartisan bill would give highly qualified, foreign-born professionals the ability to practice medicine here in the United States. This bill follows President Trump’s vision for a merit-based immigration system. It recaptures unused work visas that have already been approved, meaning our immigration levels won’t change or increase. It cuts red tape to make our system more efficient. It will enhance our medical workforce and will not displace American jobs.

Congress successfully used this model before, and we’re confident this is the best way to quickly address the shortage of medical providers.

How will this bill specifically help people in Georgia?  

Georgia’s shortage of doctors and nurses is severe. While Georgia is the eighth largest state by population, it ranks 39th in number of active physicians per capita, and over half of our state’s 159 counties have been designated as primary care professional shortage areas. This is a serious issue that impacts all Georgians, particularly those in our rural communities.

Georgia needed more doctors and nurses before COVID-19 began, and we need them even more now that we’re in the midst of this crisis. The certainty provided by better and more fully staffed hospitals is essential to our efforts to reopen the economy, and it is vital to ensuring that our medical system remains resilient and can handle any future outbreak.

How does “recapturing” visas work exactly in this instance?

Every year, thousands of visas go unused because of bureaucratic red tape and government inefficiency. It is estimated that between 200,000 and 250,000 visas have gone unused over the past 18 years. Our bill would simply tap into the pool of unused visas and recapture a limited number for doctors and nurses currently caught in the green card backlog. To be clear, these visas would go toward doctors and nurses who have already been approved to work in our country. By removing bureaucratic barriers, we can use already-approved but unused visas to address our country’s medical provider shortages.

Is this a short-term measure, or something you envision keeping in place for years to come? 

This is a targeted, temporary measure to quickly address our nation’s shortage of doctors and nurses. Our bill would allow individuals in the green card backlog to file for recaptured visas for up to 90 days after termination of the president’s COVID-19 emergency declaration.

How much bipartisan support is there for this legislation, and what do you see as its biggest challenges in getting through Congress?

As an outsider, I think this common-sense bill is a great example of what can happen when people in Washington put their political self-interests aside and focus on what’s best for the country. I’ve been impressed with the level of support from both sides of the aisle. The need is immediate as we continue to deal with the COVID-19 crisis. We all want to act quickly to support our health care workers and ensure that we are prepared to handle a crisis like this going forward.